Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The return of Ugandapithecus and other historical tales

So, the 20 million-year-old skull of Ugandapithecus Major has come back to Uganda. It's not quite come 'home', as the skull was found in Karamoja, not Buganda. Nevertheless, it has been returned to the Uganda Museum in Kampala from Paris where it has spent the year since it was discovered. There it has been cleaned, studied and copied. It had been buried in volcanic ash near the slopes of the Napak volcano and was found by a team of French archaeologists who have been working in Karamoja for twenty five years. During that time they have found fossils which are a mere five million years old; Ugandapithecus, a species which got its name in 1950, is 15 million years older than that. It is the earliest modern-sized ape skull ever found.

Photo of two replica skulls, taken from the Daily Monitor
Well, at least this irreplaceable skull is now nice and safe in a museum. Or is it? Bizarre though it might appear, many Ugandans apparently believe that the earth dates back only 6,000 years. In fact, the reporting of the story in the press perhaps inadvertantly gives the impression that this is the mainstream view whereas 'sections of science disagree'. Evolutionary theory is clearly a crazy idea thought up by madcap scientists who have failed to take account of the irrefutable historical evidence contained in one of the world's greatest myths. There are probably a lot of people who would rather that Ugandapithecus didn't exist. Fortunately, most of them are unlikely to read Uganda's 'quality' press; however, some of them will.

So what about the Uganda Museum? Let's read the Bradt Guide, the 'Bible' for anyone visiting Uganda. What does the guide say?  'The National Museum of Uganda is the oldest in East Africa, and perhaps the best...'   Well, the museum is housed in a pleasant-enough 1950s building. And people do visit it: a couple of school parties were visiting when we were there, boarders being kept occupied during the weekend. The museum has some nice collections of traditional musical instruments and some interesting displays of cultural artefacts. When we were there, someone was demonstrating how some of the instruments were played, which was good.

Much of the museum is, however, tired, dusty and outdated. One assumes that a building destined to house one of the most precious historical exhibits in the country will have a super-duper security system. However, we didn't see it. In fact, there are plans to knock the museum down and replace it with an office block, seeing as it occupies a prize plot of real estate. Every so often this short-sighted idea re-emerges and one or two people write letters to the papers objecting.

The original idea was that the skull was considered 'too priceless to be put on display and...... [would be] placed in a vault.'  (Daily Monitor 03/08/2011) That view has clearly changed. Nevertheless, I am sure the skull will be safe in its glass case from any passing bigoted crackpot.

In fact, it is not at all certain that historical monuments and artefacts hold much value for Ugandans and, to be fair, most of them have many other things to worry about in their lives. Only last week, more or less at the same time as the arrival of Ugandapithecus was being serenaded, the 450-year-old site of the coronation of the Buganda kings, Bwanika House, was burnt down. According to the Monitor, 'The Naggalabi Buddo Coronation Site is where Chief Kintu defeated his rival Bemba and declared himself the first Kabaka of Buganda.'

It appears that the cause of the fire was arson, quite possibly connected with some of the political tensions surrounding the relationship between the Kingdom of Buganda and the Republic of Uganda. Only two years ago, the Kasubi Royal Tombs, a World Heritage Site, was burnt down at the height of the lethal power struggle between the Kabaka and the President. The government has just handed over a Shs2 billion cheque for reconstruction.

Entrance to the Kasubi Tombs
Roof of reception area from the inside
Kasubi Tombs as they once were (photo from the official website)
How they looked from the inside (photo from the official website)
How they looked when we visited them
Mind you, the Baganda do not seen to give any of their historical monuments much care and attention. Many, like the Wamala Tombs, are in semi-ruinous state - this despite the fact that they are still in use for ceremonial purposes.

Disintegrating Wamala Tombs

It is very difficult to track down historical sites in Uganda. Very few of them are marked clearly on maps or signposted from the roads. They are certainly not as well marketed as Uganda's wildlife and don't seem to have as proactive a body as the Uganda Wildlife Authority promoting them. This may be because most are religious sites for traditional animism and therefore most visitors are expected to be worshippers rather than tourists. There are also many holy trees and waterfalls at which people worship, but again, very difficult to track down. We have found out about them from the Uganda@50 series in the Monitor, but haven't got round to going to look for any of them yet. It's doubtful how welcome casual visitors would be. There are also, of course, a good number of Christian sites including those commemorating the Uganda Martyrs and other missionary deaths. They are currently on our 'to do' list.

Even sites without religious significance, like Mengo Palace in Kampala, do not make that much of themselves. It was here that the father of the current Kabaka, Kabaka Edward Mutesa, lived before he was forced into exile in Britain, where he died in unfortunate circumstances. He had escaped from the palace while it was being attacked by Obote's troops under the command of Idi Amin.

The palace is an attractive building from the outside but is not open to visitors, though there may not actually be much to see inside. When Obote's forces attacked the palace in 1966, centuries-old royal regalia and treasures were burnt.

The place within its grounds which really would draw visitors if they knew about it, is the set of underground cells and execution chambers used by Idi Amin. They were originally built as an arsenal.

You can now visit these rather claustrophobic rooms in the company of a guide. The walls are covered with desperately sad graffiti and the floors scattered with some bones of dubious provenance.

However, there is one exception to the generally neglected state of Uganda's historical sites and museums. The new museum of the Ankole kingdom, Igongo Cultural Centre, near Mbarara (western Uganda) is well worth visiting. It shows how the Banyankore and Bakiga lived a century or so ago and contains attractively arranged showcases with a range of cultural artefacts. It also has that pre-requisite of a good museum - a pleasant coffee shop.

The historical site I really want to visit before I leave is near Kumi: the Nyero Rock Paintings. These date back to the early Iron Age and contain representations of canoes carrying people, zebras and geometric designs. There are apparently several of such sites across Uganda but this is the most accessible. This accessibility is probably quite unfortunate as it turns out that during the insurgency, people moved into the area, encroached on the land and have now started growing crops around the site. Worse, they have actually started quarrying the rocks themselves, according to a newspaper article in May this year. I hope that the paintings haven't completely disappeared before I get there. I'll let you know in my blog!

The issue of the Nyero Rock Paintings is a difficult one. How do you balance the responsibility to conserve the national heritage against the claims and needs of the people alive just now? However, it doesn't look as if the pressure on land in the Teso region is such that people actually have to live on that very spot. There is also no indication that these are the only rocks left for quarrying.

This post has been a very patchy look at the historical and archaeological inheritance of Uganda, largely because of my own ignorance. It jumps from 20 million years ago to the present time with not much in between. This is not because there isn't much, I am sure. It is just that no one really knows about it or has written about it in popular booklets such as people like me read. This is a pity as I would love to go and visit such sites, although admittedly I am not too enthusiastic about tramping unmarked paths with elephant grass over my head in order to do so. There also seems to be little urgency to save, preserve and record this heritage while it is still there. Almost certainly, of course, the money available to devote to such a cause will be quite inadequate.

All of which means, of course, that we should be very grateful that Ugandapithecus is - if not quite alive - at least well and occupying a cosy cabinet in the Uganda Museum. May his rest be safe and comfortable.

The return of our distant cousin - Ugandapithecus (Daily Monitor 11/08/12)

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